Thursday, 07 March 2013 22:55 Yebio Woldemariam
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Yebio Woldemariam, Adjunct Professor

York College, of CUNY

On Tuesday the 5th of March, 2013 a panel discussion on Eritrean refugees was held at Simmons College in which the author participated and submitted the paper titled “  Eritrean Refugees and Human Trafficking”

Eritrea is one of the few countries in the world that begun producing refugees as early as late 1960s. Perhaps it is one of the earliest conflict prone areas in Africa where its citizens were forced to flee their home for safe sanctuary in the Sudan. Sadly, the earliest victims of this involuntary exodus were Muslim pastoralist in whose region the conflict begun.  Therefore, massive refugee influx is not a new phenomenon to this troubled land because at the height of the civil war that pitted the Ethiopian army with the Eritrean Liberation Fronts for about three decades, an estimated 350,000 were dislocated from their homes and has remained sheltered in the Sudan and elsewhere for a long period of time. What makes the refugee problem in Eritrea more complex today is that refugees are young, mobile and to some extent educated, escaping the harsh rule of their own government. Unlike their predecessors decades ago who were mostly rural/pastoral and unskilled/semi-skilled workers whose worldly outlook is limited and somewhat confined to their immediate environment, the new generation of refugees are anxious and with intense urge to move. Being part of the millennium generation they are no more held back by traditional norm and social morass and are intolerant to unreasonable interference in their lives by aging freedom fighters at the helm of the government.

Global Refugee Prespective
According to UNHCR world refugee population in 2011 was estimated at 15.4 million of which 80 percent are from the developing world. This figure does not include those of Syria and the Sahel region of Africa were violent conflict is going unabated. Moreover an additional 43.7 million people are found displaced within the political boundary of the conflict areas .  Almost all refugees live in squalor conditions and yearn for the day they return home. The majority, however, stay indefinitely in their place of refuge some like the Palestinians, the Afghans and the Eritreans for more than 30 years. The average time that a refugee returns home according to UNHCR is now 5 years or more.  Since the 1970s world refugee population has quintupled causing concern for UN agencies in particular and the developed world in general. The cause of cross border movement by people is of course conflict among nation states and instability within the state. Many of the nations in Africa have little conflict resolving mechanism to avert civil upheaval fueled by narrow sub-national interest, ethnic rivalry and religious intolerance.

Eritrean Refugees:chronic problem
The war for Eritrea’s independence begun in the lowlands mainly inhabited by Muslims and it was led by a Muslim vanguard movement with discernible pan-Arabic influence. Given the circumstance, it was taken for grant and perhaps fair play for the ancient Christian nation of Ethiopia to deal with Muslim insurgency with impunity, thus causing, huge numbers of people to run for their lives. The state of emergency declared in 1970 after the ambush and the killing of an Ethiopian Army general responsible for conducting the war, things turned from bad to worst. Between this incident and the eruption of the 1974 popular revolution in Ethiopia, hundreds of thousands of lowland Eritreans became homeless. But as the war for Eritrea’s independence intensified other part of the society namely the Abyssinians in the plateau were dragged into joining the war against Ethiopia adding more to the refugee population. When the war ended and The Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF) entered Asmara triumphantly, there were about half a million of refugees, the majority of whom were Muslims who remained in the Sudan since the start of the conflict. Effort to bring them to Eritrea with the help of UNHCR failed and many stayed in the Sudan, few acquiring Sudanese citizenship but many staying as undocumented immigrants. The opposition in particular the Muslims blame the EPLF led government for failing to negotiate with the agency in good faith. It should be noted here, that the EPLF has been perceived as Christian/Abyssinian bastion by the Muslims while some  within opposition view it as an antithesis of ELF which was regard as an Islamic and feudal.

The Millennium Refugees
The new wave of refugees begun to arrive in the Sudan and Ethiopia immediately after the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 ended.   It should be noted here that the core of the Eritrean army were made up of National Service (NS) recruited from schools, work places and the rural areas whose age ranging from 18 to 40 years. The army conscription was mandated by the 1995 decree which gave the government the power to recruit young people to serve in the army for 18 months . Theoretically, these servicemen and women are supposed to be discharged after the completion of their service. But, as the crisis dragged and the no war no peace situation with Ethiopia continued, the young were forced to stay in the military service longer than the law permitted.  Some recruits from the Fifth Round of conscription had already served for nearly 4 years by the time the Peace Agreement was signed in Algiers in 2000.  Sadly enough neither the Peace Agreement nor the border arbitration ruling by the International Court in Hague  relieved the 200,000 youth from the dredge of army life. To the dismay of many well meaning Eritreans including higher officials of the government the youth remained mobilized decade after the hostility ended. The government on the pretext that Ethiopia is not up to good and may one day invade Eritrea choose vigilance instead of rapprochement, hostility in place of peace, all at the expense of the youth. That appeared to be the main reason why it decided to keep the young recruits indefinitely. Based on UNHCR statistics Eritrea boasts some 266,162 refugee next to Somalia .There are about 36,000 more in Israel whose status is classified as ‘infiltrators’ denied  the protection they deserve in accordance to the 1951 Genève Convention.  Quoting the UNHCR data sources, the Wall Street Journal places Eritrea the ninth in the top 10 source countries of refugees

It was this hopelessness coupled with desperation that drove the young, most of whom school aged and some college bound to leave Eritrea when ever opportunity avails itself. When leaving the country clandestinely they run the risk of being shot at by the army to prevent their escape to Ethiopia and the Sudan.  Few, who can afford to pay exorbitant price for freedom, are helped by smugglers working in cahoots with army officials. Escaping Eritrea is one of the many phases that the young has to undergo to achieve freedom, however.  In their journey through the Nile valley to Israel or Europe most refugees pass through a grueling experience that we in the West would never dream exists. I shall briefly deal with that in a short while later.

People leaving Eritrea are also victims of the misdirected and primitive economic policy imposed by an aging cabal.  The nature of the state is such that it neither controls the economy on behalf of a corporate state nor allow laisser-faire economic system where citizens take part freely in the market. The government in Eritrea is not typical of the dictatorial regimes that the world knows, were the existence and the supremacy of the State take precedence above everything. It is an entity that is privately managed by a handful with one supreme leader at the center.  Whatever government institutions there may exist in Eritrea today never received monies for project execution or had budget allocated for the execution of long and short term projects. There are little or no supervisory mechanisms on public assets because there is no General Auditing office one can speak off. Trade, construction, and communication are handled by those close to the center and each manages it as his/her fiefdom.  As the result there is little opportunity for the young coming of age. It is precisely because of this grim reality that about 25% of the residents in the refugee camps are between 12 and 17 years of age.

The Journey to Freedom

Methods used
The journey to freedom is so arduous that few live to tell it. Although the gruesome story of the human smuggling victims begins after they cross the Sudanese border, few are also enticed by and often kidnapped from Eritrea and sold to criminals with connection to Bedouin Arabs in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. There is credible evidence to suggest that the refugee camps in Ethiopia also acts as a watershed for the Human trafficking criminal enterprise to flourish.  The methods or rather tricks used to capture refugees for trafficking are numerous. The most common one is by persuading the young to venture out of the UNHCR camps for a quick buck working at factories, farms and at homes. Once they are out of the safe environment they are kept in a remote place until they are shipped to the Sinai. At times the Sudanese border guards act as a look out for the human traffickers loading unsuspecting new arrivals to waiting vans owned by the criminals instead of directing them to the UNHCR camps.  It is not uncommon that young Eritreans are snatched in broad daylight in cities and towns of Sudan. The most frightening part of the whole human trafficking episode is that some with no intention of leaving their homes are often whisked from military camps and towns inside Eritrea to be handed over to the criminals in eastern Sudan. In this case the primary targets are those with known family members living abroad and with the ability to pay ransom to free them.

The Actors
The recently published report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) came with an alarming report stating that about 21 million people are trafficked for forced labor, prostitution, organ harvesting, and for ransom. Human trafficking is a lucrative business with an estimated transaction of 32 Billion dollars annually . In the Nile valley a variety of people among them the Rashaidas of  Eritrea and the Sudan are considered the major players in the game of human trafficking involving mostly Eritrean refugees . The Rashaidas are nomadic people whose origin is the Arabian Peninsula with some clout in the murky politics of the region. Their livelihood depends on contraband trade ranging from running guns, to electronic goods to human trafficking. They are the important link in the chain of the shady business of human trafficking. They are closely associated with the cabal in Asmara in particular with army officers in the border area .

The most brutal of them all are the Bedouin in Sinai who are the ultimate beneficiaries of this criminal enterprise.  When the Rashaidas have assembled enough of their human cargo in the Sudan they travel through the Egyptian desert crossing two key bridges to the Sinai ostensibly undetected by the Egyptian security forces. Thereafter, it is the Bedouin who begin negotiating with the family of hostages for their release and with the promise of helping them cross into Israel clandestinely. The ransom money that Bedouin request ranges from 30- 40,000 USD. Earlier in the game the price was less than 8,000 USD, but with the signing of the Italo-Libyan Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 2008, the route to Europe was heavily policed by the Italian and the Maltese coast guards while the defunct Libyan forces kept a watch full eye on the southern flank of the Mediterranean Sea, making the Sinai the only alternative route to leave the African continent.

However, without the support of hundreds of Eritreans inside the country, the Sudan and Ethiopia the scale of the human trafficking would have been a fraction of what it is today. The Eritreans many of them refugees themselves act as bait to unsuspecting refugees in the refugee camps convincing them that there is an easy way of travelling to Europe/America or Israel with nominal fee paid to smugglers. Once agreed they pass the refugees to the Rashaidas who immediately shackle them for their eventual transfer to Sinai.  Hostages are rarely released in the Sudan because the price they fetch is insignificant  compared to when they are transported to Sinai The International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER) has compiled partial list of those who are engaged in human trafficking and published the report in early 2012 . It is also important to mention here that many Sudanese nationals and few Ethiopians as well as Sudanese security officials are involved in these degrading and inhuman practices of human trafficking.

Squeezing the Juice
The moment the hostages arrive in Sinai they are distributed among the five major families located few miles from the Israel-Egyptian border.  Reminiscent of the bygone era, hostages are chained and placed in makeshift rooms dominated by the big house occupied by the patriarchal chief, his relatives and wives. Soon after their arrival torture begins and calls are made to relatives in the middle of the torture session. Thereafter, the torture continues until the hostage comes up with the money requested by the criminals. Few fortunate ones avoid the prolonged torture by paying the ransom immediately but for many it continues for months. The majority who has no means to pay or have no extended family living in the US/Europe, Africa or the Gulf states die a miserable death. There are also candidates for organ harvesting in particular those individuals appearing healthy and with admirable physical attributes. Thanks to CNN, an American cable channel and TV 25 of Egypt the world was able to peep on the atrocities committed by the Bedouin of Egypt, the Rashaidas and their underlings the Eritreans in the refugee camps and cities and towns of the Republic of Sudan .

I am not going to bore you with details on the torture methods used to extract, extort, and blackmail Eritrean families at home and abroad. Suffice it to say that to achieve their objectives the criminals use all means of torture including electrocution, burning with melted plastic bag, suspension in the air (a position they call Jesus Christ), food deprivation etc. Among the most abominable torture administered on the victims is calling parents while their daughters are being raped or their son’s finger nails plucked. Below I will share few but still fresh accounts by veterans of the horror chamber who finally made it to freedom but are awaiting deportation in some of the Egyptian prisons in North Sinai.

An Eritrean-Swedish journalist, Meron Estifanos had the opportunity to interview few of the prisoners in February 2013 and here is some of her finding.

  1. A 22 year old women the daughter of an independence war veteran died at the hand of the Bedouin criminals leaving a 2 year old child. The child came to Sinai when she was 6 month infant. She is now under the care of foster parents in Israel
  2. A father and mother with an 8 year old child are kept hostage and are tortured in front of their child.
  3. A women waiting deportation at Aswan prison told Meron that at the camp where she was kept hostage for nearly a year at least  35 persons died
  4. An Eritrean Orthodox priest who was kidnapped by the Rashaidas and sent to Sinai but later released after paying  ransom of 33,000 USD relates to the journalist that out of 28 hostages taken with him to the Sinai 21 died during their ordeal.
  5. A young man who risked retribution from his captors told the interviewer that out of 10 in his cell only he survived.

What is to be Done

Our obligation as members of this esteem higher institutions of learning is to educate, agitate and advocate on behalf of the unfortunate fellow human beings whose inalienable right to live in peace is violated by the outlaws in Eritrea, the Sudan and Egypt but also by the governments whose deaf ear to the plight of the victims is indirectly encouraging individuals in those countries to pursue their criminal activities with impunity. It is imperative that we appeal to our governments in the Western democracies and in particular the US to put pressure on these terror elements and the countries where the terror is conducted. We have the responsibility as enlightened members of the society to combat the evil of human trafficking and the cause of it. After all, the protest against nuclear armament and apartheid, the movement for environmental protection and the promotion of fair global trade started at the institutions of higher learning. We can follow this noble tradition to stop the causes of human displacement and human trafficking.

Moreover, we need to ponder why at this day and age we have such huge number of refugees amongst us.  Certainly there are plausible reasons we in the academia not to mention officials in government halls are not aware of, that is, the benign neglect of the developed world to the problems of the Third World. For the sake of argument if we put aside the multitude of internal political problems that aggravate the uprooting of people from their original homes, the affluent North is partly to blame for its indifference to the existing socio-economic gap between it and the rest of the world, in particular Africa which pathetically occupy the bottom rung in world development scale. The unfair trade stuck against Africa, the piling of  loans which more or less line the pockets of rulers placed to serve the interest of international bankers and miners, the overt gun  running operations taking place are but few of those issues complicating the refugee problem in our time. Addressing world economic problem, therefore, becomes an urgent matter before the globalization that is perceived only in strict economic term is metamorphosed into globalization of disease epidemics, terror and despair that knows no boundary.  One of the top World Bank experts in his book entitled The Bottom Billion put it succinctly when describing the world of haves and have-nots this way ‘A cesspool of misery next to the world of growing prosperity is both terrible for those in the cesspool and dangerous for those who live next to it’ .


[1] UNHCR: World Refugee Day. UNHCR Report June 2011

[2] Eritrean Government, Proclamation No 82/1995

[3] UNHCR: 2013 UNHCR regional operations profile - East and Horn of Africa

[4]Wall Street Journal 02 March 2013, Joel Millman

[5] United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC)Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012

[6] The Rashidas are from three branches of Arab tribe, all belonging to the supra tribe of Rashaida scattered in Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Eritrea, Libya, South Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.  The three Rashaida tribes of Eritrea are: Al-Baratikh, Al-barai’ids and Al-Zilaimat collectively known as bani-rashid-al-absia

[7] Report of the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 1916 (2010). P 110

[8] The Saga of the Eritrean Refugees and the Human Smugglers. International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER). . February 17, 2012

[9] CNN Organ harvesting Report:

[10] Paul Collier. Bottom Billion. Oxford University Press, 2007.